When the Recession Ends, What Will Happen to Women Workers?

Note to The New York Times: The correct term for referring to the incorrect notion that this recession primarily affects men is "hecession," not "mancession."

In any case, on the paper's Economix blog today, Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago writes that although women's labor force participation has inched up to 49.9 percent since the recession hit, it doesn't mean that women are about to surpass men in the labor force permanently. Why? Mulligan explains that men have been struggling during the recession because of the loss of construction and manufacturing jobs, but that it still takes unemployed men and women about the same time to find a new position after they've been laid off. In other words, women are not suddenly becoming more desirable workers to hire. Rather, certain gender-segregated industries have taken an especially hard hit, leaving more men than women looking for a new job.

Mulligan predicts that women's labor-force participation will fall when we pull out of the recession.

Once the male-intensive industries slow down their layoffs (even if those industries never actually expand again), more men than women will gradually find new positions — remember that more men are searching — and we will see women’s share recede from the 50 percent mark again.

This fits with a historical economic trend: Women's work is more visible during recessions, as men bear the brunt of layoffs. But when the economy rebounds, men remain the most desirable workers, with first pick of jobs -- like those in construction and transportation -- that are unionized and have good benefits. That's why it's crucial to remember that non-college educated women remain clustered in lower-paying jobs than their male counterparts; jobs that are less likely to include health insurance, less likely to be unionized or have stable hours, and more likely to have low wages. Any unemployment program should seek not just to create more jobs for laid-off men, but to address the bad working conditions in many "pink collar" jobs held primarily by women.

--Dana Goldstein

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